Despite efforts to bring more awareness mental health, a stigma persists both socially and in athletic culture. Below, Michael Asbach, a Doctorlly trained Psychiatric Physician Assistant at DENT Behavioral Health, answers some questions about mental health and sports.
How big of a role does mental health play in sports?
Mental health has an impact on nearly every aspect of our lives. When our mental health is good, we are primed to perform at our peak. But when mental health is less than optimal, everything in life can be more difficult, including our performance in sports. Sports and mental health have a complicated relationship. For most, participating in sports will have a beneficial influence on mental health, reducing the risk of depression and anxiety. But the stress and high pressure of competition can negatively influence mental health, especially for athletes who perform at a very high level.
Mental Health in sports is just as essential as Physical Health
As a society, we have come a long way in reducing the stigma of mental health. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be accomplished. We have heard several high-profile athletes recently open up about their mental health struggles, including the impact mental health has had on their performance. The courage of these athletes has been met with a mixed response. Mental health should not be viewed any differently than a physical injury. We no longer celebrate a football quarterback shaking off a head injury to stay in the game, and similarly, we should not criticize athletes who come forward with mental health struggles.
While a famous athlete may not read our social media posts or hear us talking negatively about them to our friends, someone else who is silently struggling with mental illness might. Approximately 1 in 5 adults struggle with mental health and nearly 50% of Americans will struggle with a mental health-related issue at some point in their life. Our critical words regarding famous athletes and their mental health may make it harder for others to have the confidence and courage to come forward and seek mental health care.
When do we know we have reached our limits?
If an athlete over-trains physically, they will reach a point where it causes more harm than benefit. Muscles will break down without a chance to recover, the athlete will expose themselves to a higher risk of injury. Similarly, athletes must take care of their mental wellness to maintain peak performance. Athletes and coaches must watch for signs of mental distress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, feelings of dread associated with the practice, a dislike for the sport they used to enjoy. Athletes need to take care of their mental health and this can include things such as taking days off, participating in activities outside of their sport, taking breaks during training sessions, meeting with a sports psychologist or mental performance coach, maintaining strong family and social bonds, and many other aspects of self-care.
What are the next steps to have a successful mental recovery?
If someone experiences a mental health issue in sports, one of the best things is to take a step back. Sports, especially at a high level, can be stressful and consume much of your free time. It is difficult to focus on mental health recovery while also still trying to practice and perform every day. If someone sprains an ankle, they take time off from practicing and allow the ankle to recover. If someone experiences a mental health difficulty, it should be treated similarly.
How big of a role does your coach have on your mental health?
A good coach can provide a strong and positive influence on an athlete’s career and life more broadly. But a bad coach can cause the athlete to lose their passion for the sport, or even worse, develop mental health issues. We have all experienced or heard stories of coaches who scream curses, and intimate athletes to “motivate” them to perform. This is simply wrong and counterproductive. Coaches should focus on the positive, help athletes find internal motivation, and emphasize the positive aspects of the athlete’s efforts and performance.
How can coaches better prepare themselves?
Thankfully, there are many wonderful resources to help coaches become more mentally health aware. Project Play through the Aspen Institute (https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/) is an excellent resource for youth coaches with many different articles on optimizing both physical and emotional well-being.
What conversations should coaches and teams have to open the mental health dialogue?
Coaches can help de-stigmatize mental health struggles by proactively talking about them with their athletes. Ensuring that athletes feel comfortable disclosing both physical and mental injuries to their coaching staff is an essential part of competent coaching. If an athlete feels the need to hide an injury, they risk further, more serious injury, but also will not be able to perform at their physical and emotional best.
How can you approach a teammate who might be off mentally?
If you notice a teammate who might be struggling with a mental injury, it can be intimidating to reach out to them. However, these conversations are often less awkward than initially feared. The athlete may be relieved to have a safe space to share if they are struggling and will appreciate the knowledge that their teammates care for them. If you are concerned about a teammate but don’t feel comfortable talking to them, let a coach know that you’re concerned. The key is that if you think something is wrong, you should say something.
Our goal at the DENT Neurologic Institute is to expand psychiatric services and to improve psychiatric care in Western New York. We treat adult patients for a wide range of mental illnesses and addiction disorders, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and more. Click here to learn more about DENT Behavioral Health